It gets very annoying to feel like I am, far too often, writing critically about the Maple Leafs. I’ve long said here that I want this to be a positive site, one that brings hockey and Maple Leaf fans together—not a place that sees us always do the easy thing: pick at the team and find faults all the time. (So a warning: if you're not in the mood for what's coming, click off right now. I will absolutely understand...)
But lately, I find I’m having to fight (not always successfully) the temptation to harangue the organization—not the players so much, but team management. Why do I feel this way? Partly because Burke was so arrogant upon his arrival (and subsequently) in his not-so-subtle condemnation of his predecessors like Pat Quinn when he said things like, “I’m not the guy that traded for Owen Nolan…”. His inference? Judge him on his time with the club, not on what came before him. Fair enough.
But unfortunately, when you say things like that, you are clearly throwing the people who came before you under the bus. So while I don’t like the cheap shot at Quinn, I’ll set that aside and look briefly at Burke’s track record in Toronto.
As I’ve long acknowledged here, Burke has absolutely made progress (and yes, despite the recent skid, there has been progress) here. We’re a faster team. Until recently we were pretty entertaining many nights. The Marlies are a better team. There is more depth in the system. (I can’t argue it is proven depth at this point, but we certainly have more players with potential than we have in a long while…)
The truth is, however, Burke is finding it is not as easy as he thought it would be to build a winner in Toronto.
I often mention his comment (stated many times, so it wasn’t just an off-the-cuff, one-time statement) that he had no patience for a “five-year re-build” when he took this job. That was three and a half years ago. He has done things to expedite the process, starting with the Kessel trade. And that’s fine. We all wanted him to shake things up, and he has. But based on certain key fundamental criteria, Burke has not accomplished what I would have hoped for, by now.
Why do I say this?
Since he claims he “always” build teams from the back end out, I assumed we would have excellent goaltending by now. I love that Reimer (but be honest, it was a shock to all, including Burke and most fans) stole the limelight last year. And it’s great now that Gustavsson (as I’ve suggested in this space many times) is finally getting a run of games and is playing closer to the way I think he can, using his athleticism and instincts.
But really, can we say we have a settled goaltending situation? I guess I figured we would by now.
Also, I never thought we would quite possibly not be in the playoffs by Burke’s fourth spring at the helm. Be honest—did anybody?
Finally, I figured yes, we would one day change coaches and when we did, it would be at a time that made strategic sense: as in, when there was time for the players to adjust to a completely different style of play. For example, in the summer—and well before training camp. Instead, he made a panic move to fire Wilson, bring in Carlyle- without taking the time this spring to see who the best available coach is for the most important hockey franchise in the world. (I’m not knocking Carlyle. Maybe he is the best available coach in the world. He must be in Burke’s eyes.) But again, let’s not pretend that, while Burke was doing this for the “longer term”, he also believed Carlyle would light a fire and lead the Leafs to the playoffs this spring.
That may not happen, after the Leafs have stumbled through the last three weeks of Wilson’s tenure and the first few games of the Carlyle era.
I want to be clear: I’m not passing judgment on Carlyle’s first ten days on the job. I’ve said here—and elsewhere—that any assessments made prematurely about in-season coaching changes generally mean precious little. We will be well into next season, or later, before we see the likely effects.
But here’s the thing; this far into Burke’s tenure, we are now bringing in a coach who wants and needs certain types of players. What does this mean? Well, it may mean that guys like Kessel—who Burke moved heaven and earth for to get here—may not fit.
So are we re-building again? Because we need players who will play the way Carlyle wants them to play, right? And this, after Burke was seemingly “all in” on the way Wilson’s Leafs were playing- that free-wheeling, offensive, head-manning, entertaining style? (Except, we found out later, that Burke likes a rougher team than Wilson. That was a long time to let that fundamental philosophical distinction between GM and coach continue…Wow.)
So will we stop one re-build and start another—with yet more new players? We’re now going to get rougher again, it seems. Didn’t Burke say not long ago there was no place for guys like Colton Orr any more? (He was publicly upset about it, but that’s what he said about where the game was going…)
We’ve already tried the whole over-discussed “truculent” thing. Komisarek, Orr, Rosehill, et all.
How did that go?
So now we’re back to that? Gone is the speed game, replaced by a defensive pre-occupation that borders on well, let’s just say it’s dull. (But hey, maybe it will be ultimately effective.)
But I know, I know. People will say: what do we care, as long as we win.
True. True. And maybe when we “win”, I’ll jump on board a bit less grudgingly than what I feel right now. At the moment, I feel like I’m in limbo. And whether they will admit it or not (they won't), you better believe the players are playing like they feel they are wearing sunglasses out there. Obsessed with impressing a new guy, their defensive play and not making a positioning mistake—all while playing "tough" and squeezing their sticks so hard at the other end of the ice, as scoring chances drop and losses keep piling up.
Yes, the goalies (Gus, in this case) look better. Absolutely. Of course, almost anyone would under this “system”.
Again, I’m not saying Carlyle, boring style and all, won’t bring more success to the Leafs. They are playing hard, competing and all that. In truth, they did that under Wilson too. In fact, that’s what people often said over the years, that under Wilson, the Leafs weren’t very talented, but they sure played hard.
And, they were entertaining. But over the past month, they started to lose under Wilson.
Now they’re boring—and they, at least for the moment, are still struggling to win.
I’ll I’m trying to say, perhaps none too clearly (blame watching too much losing hockey…but they, that’s an excuse…no complaints and no excuses here…) is that, bottom line, the Leafs have not achieved (yet) what I hoped they would under Burke. And it’s an odd time to have changed everything—coaches, systems— in the middle of the game.
Fans can feel optimistic if they’d like, and say things like, “Ashton sure looks like a nice player”. Well, so would almost anyone trying to make an impression in his first few games as a Leaf. We said that same thing in recent years about Schenn, Kadri, Colborne, Frattin, insert name here…
My point? The Ashton call-up was not based on meritocracy. That is Burke desperately trying to prove he did something at the deadline, that he made a good trade, that Ashton is a player. Otherwise, how, under our “meritocracy”, could he possibly have been the guy who deserved a call-up over Ryan Hamilton, the captain of the Marlies, or someone who has played hard for the Marlies for the past couple of season (I’m just using Hamilton as an example)?
And that’s the point. The lack of success has led to changing things in mid-stream, and now they’re just grasping at any straw that flies by. Gus makes a few nice saves. Play him—not because the brass believes in him, or even thinks he’ll be here next fall, but the team is, you know, desperate.
Fire the coach. Sure. Even though we just gave him an extension (and on that note, how many times have I written here about that very thing—extend a coach when you win a few games and the next thing you know, you want to fire him…).
Need some punch? Last season it was nonsensically bringing Kadri up in the fall of the 2010-’11 season to save the sinking ship and score goals for a dream that couldn't find the net. It didn’t work. Now it’s Ashton to bring...what? There is no real sense to it. Just optics to make the GM look good.
Hey, Aston may be a really fine player. But that’s not really the point, is it.
Yes…that’s where we’ve fallen. We may start winning between now and the end of the regular season, but to me, it looks like we’re just making it up as we go.